Speaking of Jung – The Bill W. – Carl Jung Letters (2024)


January 23, 1961
Professor Dr. C. G. Jung
Seestrasse 228

My dear Dr. Jung:
This letter of great appreciation has been very long overdue.
May I first introduce myself as Bill W., a co-founder of the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous. Though you have surely heard of us, I doubt if you are aware that a certain conversation you once had with one of your patients, a Mr. Roland H., back in the early 1930’s, did play a critical role in the founding of our fellowship.
Though Roland H. has long since passed away, the recollection of his remarkable experience while under treatment by you has definitely become part of A.A. history. Our remembrance of Roland H.’s statements about his experience with you is as follows:
Having exhausted other means of recovery from his alcoholism, it was about 1931 that he became your patient. I believe he remained under your care for perhaps a year. His admiration for you was boundless, and he left you with a feeling of much confidence.
To his great consternation, he soon relapsed into intoxication. Certain that you were his “court of last resort,” he again returned to your care. Then followed the conversation between you that was to become the first link in the chain of events that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
My recollection of his account of that conversation is this: First of all, you frankly told him of his hopelessness, so far as any further medical or psychiatric treatment might be concerned. This candid and humble statement of yours was beyond doubt the first foundation stone upon which our Society has since been built.
Coming from you, one he so trusted and admired, the impact upon him was immense.
When he then asked you if there was any other hope, you told him that there might be, provided he could become the subject of a spiritual or religious experience—in short, a genuine conversion. You pointed out how such an experience, if brought about, might remotivate him when nothing else could. But you did caution, though, that while such experiences had sometimes brought recovery to alcoholics, they were, nevertheless, comparatively rare. You recommended that he place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best. This I believe was the substance of your advice.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. H. joined the Oxford Group, an evangelical movement then at the height of its success in Europe, and one with which you are doubtless familiar. You will remember their large emphasis upon the principles of self-survey, confession, restitution, and the giving of oneself in service to others. They strongly stressed meditation and prayer. In these surroundings, Roland H. did find a conversion experience that released him for the time being from his compulsion to drink.
Returning to New York, he became very active with the “O.G.” here, then led by an Episcopal clergyman, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. Dr. Shoemaker had been one of the founders of that movement, and his was a powerful personality that carried immense sincerity and conviction.
At this time (1932-34), the Oxford Group had already sobered a number of alcoholics, and Roland, feeling that he could especially identify with these sufferers, addressed himself to the help of still others. One of these chanced to be an old schoolmate of mine, named Edwin T. [“Ebby”]. He had been threatened with commitment to an institution, but Mr. H. and another ex-alcoholic “O.G.” member procured his parole, and helped to bring about his sobriety.
Meanwhile, I had run the course of alcoholism and was threatened with commitment myself. Fortunately, I had fallen under the care of a physician—a Dr. William D. Silkworth—who was wonderfully capable of understanding alcoholics. But just as you had given up on Roland, so had he given me up. It was his theory that alcoholism had two components—an obsession that compelled the sufferer to drink against his will and interest, and some sort of metabolism difficulty which he then called an allergy. The alcoholic’s compulsion guaranteed that the alcoholic’s drinking would go on, and the allergy made sure that the sufferer would finally deteriorate, go insane, or die. Though I had been one of the few he had thought it possible to help, he was finally obliged to tell me of my hopelessness; I, too, would have to be locked up. To me, this was a shattering blow. Just as Roland had been made ready for his conversion experience by you, so had my wonderful friend Dr. Silkworth prepared me.
Hearing of my plight, my friend Edwin T. came to see me at my home, where I was drinking. By then, it was November 1934. I had long marked my friend Edwin for a hopeless case. Yet here he was in a very evident state of “release,” which could by no means be accounted for by his mere association for a very short time with the Oxford Group. Yet this obvious state of release, as distinguished from the usual depression, was tremendously convincing. Because he was a kindred sufferer, he could unquestionably communicate with me at great depth. I knew at once that I must find an experience like his, or die.
Again I returned to Dr. Silkworth’s care, where I could be once more sobered and so gain a clearer view of my friend’s experience of release, and of Roland H.’s approach to him.
Clear once more of alcohol, I found myself terribly depressed. This seemed to be caused by my inability to gain the slightest faith. Edwin T. again visited me and repeated the simple Oxford Group formulas. Soon after he left me, I became even more depressed. In utter despair, I cried out, “If there be a God, will he show Himself.” There immediately came to me an illumination of enormous impact and dimension, something which I have since tried to describe in the book Alcoholics Anonymous and also in AA Comes of Age, basic texts which I am sending you.
My release from the alcohol obsession was immediate. At once, I knew I was a free man.
Shortly following my experience, my friend Edwin came to the hospital, bringing me a copy of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. This book gave me the realization that most conversion experiences, whatever their variety, do have a common denominator of ego collapse at depth. The individual faces an impossible dilemma. In my case, the dilemma had been created by my compulsive drinking, and the deep feeling of hopelessness had been vastly deepened still more by my alcoholic friend when he acquainted me with your verdict of hopelessness respecting Roland H.
In the wake of my spiritual experience, there came a vision of a society of alcoholics, each identifying with and transmitting his experience to the next—chain style. If each sufferer were to carry the news of the scientific hopelessness of alcoholism to each new prospect, he might be able to lay every newcomer wide open to a transforming spiritual experience. This concept proved to be the foundation of such success as Alcoholics Anonymous has since achieved. This has made conversion experience—nearly every variety reported by James—available on almost wholesale basis. Our sustained recoveries over the last quarter-century number about 300,000. In America and through the world, there are today 8,000 AA groups.
So to you, to Dr. Shoemaker of the Oxford Group, to William James, and to my own physician, Dr. Silkworth, we of AA own this tremendous benefaction. As you will now clearly see, this astonishing chain of events actually started long ago in your consulting room, and it was directly founded upon your own humility and deep perception.
Very many thoughtful AAs are students of your writings. Because of your conviction that man is something more than intellect, emotion, and two dollars’ worth of chemicals, you have especially endeared yourself to us.
How our Society grew, developed its Traditions for unity, and structured its functioning, will be seen in the texts and pamphlet material that I am sending you.
You will also be interested to learn that, in addition to the “spiritual experience,” many AAs report a great variety of psychic phenomena, the cumulative weight of which is very considerable. Other members have—following their recovery in AA—been much helped by your practitioners. A few have been intrigued by the I Ching and your remarkable introduction to that work.
Please be certain that your place in the affection, and in the history, of our Fellowship is like no other.
Gratefully yours,
William G. W—

* * *


Seestrasse 228
January 30, 1961

Mr. William G. W—
Alcoholics Anonymous
Box 459 Grand Central Station
New York 17, New York

Dear Mr. W.:
Your letter has been very welcome indeed.
I had no news from Roland H. any more and often wondered what has been his fate. Our conversation which he has adequately reported to you had an aspect of which he did not know. The reason that I could not tell him everything was that those days I had to be exceedingly careful of what I said. I had found out that I was misunderstood in every possible way. Thus I was very careful when I talked to Roland H. But what I really thought about was the result of many experiences with men of his kind.
His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.*
How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?
The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality, and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Roland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circ*mstances, obviously the best one.
I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.
These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Roland H., but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your very decent and honest letter that you have acquired a point of view above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism.
You see, “alcohol” in Latin is spiritus, and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.
Thanking you again for your kind letter
I remain
yours sincerely
C.G. Jung

* “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Psalm 42, 1)

My heartfelt thanks to The AA Grapevine for originally publishing these letters in 1963 and for generously allowing me to reprint them here. Special thanks to David Schoen for bringing this material to our attention. You can hear Mr. Schoen discuss these letters in Episode 8 of Speaking of Jung.

Copyright © The AA Grapevine, Inc. (January, 1963). Reprinted with permission.

Permission to reprint The AA Grapevine, Inc., copyrighted material on this website does not in any way imply affiliation with or endorsem*nt by either Alcoholics Anonymous or The AA Grapevine, Inc.

As an expert in the field of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) history and its connections to psychology and spirituality, I can provide insights into the concepts discussed in the letters exchanged between Bill W. and Carl Jung in 1961.

  1. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): AA is a fellowship of individuals who share their experiences, strength, and hope to help each other recover from alcoholism. Founded in 1935 by Bill W. and Dr. Bob S., AA is based on a 12-step program aimed at achieving and maintaining sobriety.

  2. Spiritual Experience and Conversion: The letters emphasize the importance of a spiritual or religious experience in overcoming alcoholism. Dr. Jung advised Roland H. that such an experience, akin to a genuine conversion, could be a potential solution. Bill W. later describes his own profound spiritual experience that led to his release from the compulsion to drink.

  3. Psychological Insights into Alcoholism: Dr. Silkworth, a physician mentioned in the letters, contributed to the understanding of alcoholism as having both psychological and physiological components. He described alcoholism as involving an obsession that compels the sufferer to drink and a metabolic difficulty or allergy that guarantees a deteriorating outcome.

  4. Oxford Group: The Oxford Group, mentioned in the letters, was an evangelical movement that played a significant role in the early experiences of AA members. Its emphasis on self-survey, confession, restitution, service to others, meditation, and prayer influenced the recovery of individuals like Roland H. and Edwin T. (Ebby).

  5. William James and Varieties of Religious Experience: Bill W. mentions that his friend Edwin T. brought him a copy of William James's "Varieties of Religious Experience." This influential book explores different forms of religious and spiritual experiences, providing a framework for understanding the transformative nature of such encounters.

  6. Carl Jung's Contribution: Dr. Carl Jung's insights into the spiritual aspects of alcoholism are evident in his letter to Bill W. He suggests that alcoholism may be a manifestation of a deeper spiritual thirst for wholeness. Jung emphasizes the importance of genuine religious insight or a protective human community in countering the destructive power of evil.

  7. Society and Community Support: Both letters highlight the role of community support, whether through AA groups, the Oxford Group, or personal connections. The concept of individuals sharing their experiences in a chain-like fashion is seen as a foundation for the success of AA.

  8. Integration of Psychology and Spirituality: The correspondence between Bill W. and Carl Jung underscores the integration of psychological and spiritual perspectives in understanding and addressing alcoholism. The letters reflect a multidimensional approach that considers the psychological, physiological, and spiritual aspects of addiction.

These concepts demonstrate the complex interplay of psychology, spirituality, and community support in the formation and success of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Speaking of Jung – The Bill W. – Carl Jung Letters (2024)


Where is Carl Jung in the big book? ›

On page 27 of the Big Book, Dr. Jung revealed the solution to Rowland H.'s alcoholism, “Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences.” This statement turned out to be the A.A. solution for alcoholism!

What is the Jungian book about addiction? ›

The War of the Gods of Addiction, based on the correspondence between Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Swiss psychiatrist, C.G. Jung, proposes an original, groundbreaking, psychodynamic view of addiction.

What does spiritus contra spiritum mean? ›

“Spiritus contra spiritum” literally translates to “spirit against spirit”. Loosely translated, it refers to “a spiritual experience to counter addiction to the spirits (alcoholism).” Spiritus in Latin means both alcoholic beverages, i.e., spirits, and the highest religious experience.

Did Carl Jung start AA? ›

It was in part his influence that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. As Wilson wrote to Jung, “This astonishing chain of events actually started long ago in your consulting room, and it was directly founded upon your own humility and deep perception.”

Did Carl Jung have a wife? ›

Family life

Emma Rauschenbach first met C. G. Jung in 1896 when she was still a schoolgirl, through a connection of his mother. Jung reported at the time that he knew then that one day Emma would be his wife. The couple married on 14 February 1903, seven years later.

Did Jung prescribe medication? ›

Consequently, his treatment approach didn't start with prescribing drugs but instead involved providing patients with psychological insight, such as understanding what life entails and how to effect change. Jung observed that many assume life should be effortless, with minimal suffering and no difficulties.

What is the best first book to read by Carl Jung? ›

For Absolute Beginners in Jungian Depth Psychology

A good place to begin your study of C. G. Jung and the field of analytical and depth psychology is to read Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

What is the easiest Jung book to read? ›

Best Carl Jung Book to Start with #1: Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961) Memories, Dreams, Reflections is Jung's autobiography. Throughout the book the reader will get a clear overview on who Jung was, how he developed his ideas, and what some of his most important ideas were.

What does Spiritus Insertus Atomis mean? ›

In Greek times the philosopher Old Democritus used the term “spiritus insertus atomis,” which means the spirit inserted in atoms. As if matter itself might just contain consciousness.

Does Spiritus mean alcohol? ›

You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.

What is the Latin spirit? ›

SPIRITUS ✨ the Latin word for spirit 🙏🏽 which. means breath Our breath is a powerful force, Physically, mentally & spiritually . Many cultures over many centuries have.

Is Carl Jung in the Big Book? ›

Jung's contribution to A.A.'s solution for alcoholism. The Big Book refers to part of the story on pages 26 & 27. This letter is then followed by Dr. Jung's reply.

Did Rowland Hazard join AA? ›

Rowland Hazard III's struggles with alcoholism led to his direct involvement in the chain of events that gave rise to what is today Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), where he is remembered as "Rowland H.," though Rowland himself never actually joined AA.

Where is emotional sobriety mentioned in Big book? ›

The Big Book mentions emotional sobriety in Step Twelve as an outcome of practicing all steps of the program and applying them to our daily lives: “Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety.”

Where is the spiritual axiom in the Big Book? ›

68 – The Spiritual Axiom and the Serenity Prayer in the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous – Pages 87-88 – Step 10-11 – Part 2. In part 1, I looked at the spiritual power of pausing whenever I am disturbed. This act of pausing reminds me I am no longer running the show.

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